In December 23, a birthday party was going on inside the warm, cozy home of Norma and Stan Jones. But instead of “Happy Birthday to You,” the family was singing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” (Hymns, no. 29), a favorite hymn of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
As the strains of music filled the pine-scented air, Benjamin Jones, their 21-year-old grandson, was filled with love, appreciation, and excitement. He was preparing for a mission and couldn’t wait to share his testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You see, Ben’s grandma, Norma, has gathered her family and special friends together each December for 38 years to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday by studying his life and teachings. But for Ben, this December 23rd was special because the seeds of love and respect for the Prophet these firesides planted in his heart finally took root.
“I’ve always had a testimony, but I haven’t always made the best choices,” says Elder Jones, of the Salt Lake River Oaks Second Ward, now serving as a full-time missionary in West Virginia. “However, when I saw the death mask that artist David Lindsley brought to our party that year, all of a sudden the Prophet became more than just a story I had heard many times or a painting on the wall. He came alive for me. I had been studying, praying, and searching for the direction my life should take, and I knew at that moment that Joseph Smith was truly a prophet of God.”
Elder Porter Jones, a grandson serving in the Brazil Curitiba Mission, is also experiencing the fruits of his grandmother’s labors. He writes, “Grandma, when I have the opportunity to relate the First Vision to people here in Brazil, I am able to testify about the Prophet with great conviction and power because I was surrounded by the Prophet’s teachings as a young man. Thank you so much for planting this seed in my heart.”
Little did Grandma Jones realize when she began the parties in 1962 what a missionary tool they would be. She recorded in her journal: “I had read an article on the Prophet in the Church News and was so impressed I decided to have a family birthday party to honor and study about him. Since his birthday was so close to Christmas, I combined learning about the Prophet with more serious thought on our Savior’s birth. I wrote a small invitation to each family member but did not tell them who it was for. I was afraid they would either laugh at me or think I had lost my mind. I even had a small eight-inch white cake with a tiny manger scene on top.”
But her children did not laugh. It was such a success they asked, “Mom, can we do it again next year?” And that is how the tradition began.
Making the grandchildren wait to attend the party until they turn 12 helps maintain reverence at the firesides. After their 12th birthday, they are given a special booklet on the Prophet and an invitation to the party. “I remember my parents and brothers going while I had to wait because I was too young,” says Jordan James, of the Littleton (Colorado) Second Ward.
Each year the program varies from guest speakers to lessons given by family members. One year Grandma Jones gave each family a small book on the Prophet to read prior to the party. They then took turns expressing their feelings about the Prophet and bearing testimonies of the Savior. That was the year one of their less-active sons expressed his love and gratitude to each family member and began coming back to church.
While three of the Joneses’ eight children, and so far 10 of their 38 grandchildren, have served or are now serving full-time missions, the mission field is not the only place missionary work is going on as a result of Grandma’s parties.
Grandson Morgan Jones, 17, Layton (Utah) Valley View Third Ward, has shared his favorite party with several of his nonmember friends. “The year I turned 12, Grandma invited former Church Patriarch Eldred G. Smith (Hyrum Smith’s great-grandson) and his wife, Hortense. They brought Hyrum’s watch, sunglasses, and the clothes he was wearing when the brothers were martyred in the Carthage Jail, as well as a box the Prophet had kept the Book of Mormon plates in while he was translating them in his home.
“Some of my friends were taking the missionary discussions, and I was able to express the feelings I experienced at my grandma’s birthday party that year. The Spirit was so strong. I can’t wait to go on my mission and bear witness of the First Vision and my Savior.”
“Every time I go to the party, I love it,” says Natalie James, a granddaughter living in Colorado, who just received a mission call to Spain. “Sharing the experiences and testimonies of the Prophet at these parties has given me such a respect and love for him. I tell my friends how real he is to me. I pray I will be able to take this testimony on my mission and plant the same seeds in the hearts of others.”
“Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief … it will begin to swell within your breasts; and … ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed … for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me” (Alma 32:28).
Yes, the seeds Grandma and Grandpa Jones have planted through their annual Joseph Smith birthday parties have blossomed into a love for the Prophet and for the Savior within each of their family members. The tradition has become so important that it was not broken in 1999, even though the close-knit family felt the loss of their grandpa.
The celebrations have indeed enlarged each participant’s understanding and become “delicious” to him or her. As Natalie testifies, “By studying and hearing about the Prophet, I have developed a testimony that he actually saw the Savior and our Heavenly Father face to face. I am so grateful for this knowledge and for my grandma who has instilled this in me. I am going to carry on this tradition with my own family some day.”
And so the seeds will continue to be planted and the birthday parties will continue for many years to come, all because Grandma Jones followed the prompting of the Spirit and started a family tradition.